Like many women, I’m a sucker for self-help books and articles.
I’ve always been interested in growing as a person (whatever that means) and learning how to improve myself. So when a friend recently posted a link on Facebook to Karina Lane’s article on Daily Life, ‘The communication habits that can undermine women’s power’, naturally, I clicked on it.
Instead of feeling empowered, self-satisfied and ready to take on the world with my new-found knowledge, I felt enraged. There was shouting; lots of it.
Why, oh why, do we do this to ourselves?
The article is about how women apparently diminish their own power by the way they communicate. It’s based on a book by women’s leadership expert Tara Mohr called ‘Playing Big: Practical Wisdom for Women Who Want to Speak Up, Create and Lead’. Among other things, Tara tells women to ditch words like ‘just’ and ‘actually’ from their language. Tara says we shouldn’t ‘uptalk’ – that is, raise the pitch of our voices at the end of a sentence. According to Tara, these habits are bad because they chip away at our authority and convey the message that we have nothing valuable to say.
When I started working as a barrister, more than 11 years ago, I was constantly given advice by well-meaning senior barristers on how to have a successful career at the bar. This included advice on how to speak as a barrister. It was all about finding your ‘court voice’. That meant no uptalking, using a steady tone, and speaking very slowly. Though it was not said, I later discovered that if you could throw in a Latin phrase here or there, and speak in verbose language and long sentences, so much the better. I was told to watch and learn, to model myself on one of the leaders of the bar. The message was that I’d never reach the lofty heights of success unless I joined the club – literally.
The trouble was that almost everywhere I looked, the leaders I was supposed to emulate were mainly white men from privileged backgrounds. It’s no secret that barristers as a group are one of the least diverse professional groups in the country. According to the NSW Bar Association, women make up about 22% of barristers in NSW and 11% of senior counsel in NSW are women. Things are changing, though slowly.
One of the aims of the President of the NSW Bar Association, Arthur Moses SC, is to recruit more women to the bar – he rightly recognises that a “dynamic and independent bar, which attracts and retains the best advocates, irrespective of gender, ethnicity and socio-economic background, must eventually resemble the community from which it attracts talent.” Other diversity champions in different industries have made similar arguments.
Yet there is little point in recruiting more women, more people of colour, more public school educated people etc in any industry if, once you’re there, the express or implied message is that you can only get ahead if you behave like a privileged white man.
That is not diversity. It’s what we have now, just packaged differently.
Mainstream views on charisma, confidence and authority are inherently gendered. They also reflect the dominant ethnic and class groups that rule our legal and political institutions not to mention our largest corporations. The reason why we think an uptalker isn’t powerful is because we haven’t seen one in power before.
Tara Mohr’s motto is to “clear a path by walking it, boldly”. She says that her calling is “to restore women’s voices where they are missing”. But by telling us how we should communicate, her ‘rules’ actually lead us down a well-worn path of burying women’s voices. Real power is about unashamedly embracing who you are and having the courage to be yourself and say what you think – uptalking and all.
So thanks but no thanks for the self-help tips, Tara; I’m just going to do it my way.